“Please tell Lara to check her messages. It’s urgent,” Chris Woitel, a 50-year-old computer programmer living on Guerrero Street, wrote to his niece just after 3 p.m. on Jan. 9.
Lara Haben, his sister, tried to call him back, but there was no answer.
To this day, that message, left in a tone of panic, is the last anyone has heard from Woitel, according to his friends and family.
Now, a month later, the search is on. The San Francisco Police Department said Wednesday it is investigating Woitel’s disappearance. Haben said that police told her on Thursday they will be issuing a warrant to enter Woitel’s apartment to investigate how her brother vanished after the Jan. 9 message.
Yet Woitel’s family, many of whom live in Chicago, said that communication between their family and police was so spotty for the month after Woitel’s disappearance that they were forced to take matters into their own hands. They hired a private investigator and arrived in San Francisco this week to look for more clues.
“My gut feeling is, something bad happened,” Haben, 53, who resides in Columbus, Mo., said in a recent interview.
Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak said that when an intial missing persons report was filed on Jan. 11, “there was nothing to indicate that the subject was at risk or that there was any suspicious circumstance involved.”
“Based upon the new information provided by the family, the Missing Person Unit assumed the investigation,” Andraychak added, noting that the case was in the hands of neighborhood station-level investigors for the past 30 days. He did not elaborate on how they conducted that investigation.
In the days leading up to Woitel’s disappearance, family members said he was acting strange and paranoid — writing unusual posts on Facebook, obsessing over the D.C. Capitol riots, asking for money to replace a lost cell phone, and talking about an escape to the mountains.
In texts on Jan. 8, Woitel told Haben that he had been hearing explosions outside his apartment, and that San Francisco felt increasingly “unsafe” because he feared protests by Trump supporters could spill into the city. Only hours before his family lost contact with him on Jan. 9, Woitel told Haben that a “man on a loudspeaker” passed by in a car, urging residents to “get out now.”
“Do me a favor and put some money in my account,” Woitel texted Haben, explaining he wanted to stay with friends in the mountains. “75 bucks isn’t going to get me very far.”
Soon after, Woitel stopped responding to calls and texts. On Jan. 8, Woitel’s bank account ceased activity. His friends who owned property in the mountains told Woitel’s family they had not seen him.
Surveillance footage inside Woitel’s three-story apartment building at 65 Guerrero St. shows him enter his third-floor apartment on Jan. 8 at 8:38 p.m. But cameras never captured Woitel emerging from his apartment in the following days, according to a report by private investigator Scott Williams.
Police entered Woitel’s apartment a week later and, despite no footage of Woitel leaving the apartment, found no one inside, according to Williams’ report. It is unclear how Woitel left the apartment.
“There were no signs of Christopher and no signs of any foul play,” Williams wrote, noting that the chain lock on his front door was still engaged.
The only way Woitel could have left, Williams noted, was through the back door and the back steps. But Williams reviewed surveillance footage of the back steps, which captures movements at night.
Woitel was nowhere to be seen.
A generous man
Friends, neighbors and family members described Woitel as an extremely smart person who, at times, struggled with depression. He was the fourth of six children, many of whom live in Chicago, close to their two living parents.
Woitel arrived in San Francisco some 20 years ago to pursue “new dreams,” Haben, his sister, said. Woitel had studied at DePaul University in Chicago, but continued his studies at a community college in San Francisco, although he never earned a formal degree, his family said.
Nevertheless, he became a computer programmer and knew a multitude of computer languages, his sister said. In recent years, however, he fell out of steady work and lived on disability because of his depression, his family said.
Despite the troubles he faced, everyone Mission Local spoke to for this story described Woitel as a man of extreme generosity.
One of his neighbors, Hargan Nelson, said that just before last year’s coronavirus lockdown, Woitel helped take Nelson to the hospital when Nelson’s kidneys suddenly began to fail. Woitel rode in the ambulance with Nelson and stayed with him at the hospital, he said.
“I would have died if it weren’t for him,” Nelson said, sitting at his kitchen table on Wednesday afternoon. “I owe him my life.”
That generosity often extended to some of the many people living on San Francisco’s streets. After Woitel’s longtime romantic partner died roughly a decade ago, Woitel coped by “taking care of people,” Haben said. “One of his big things is homeless people.”
Steve Willis, Woitel’s longtime neighbor who moved last August, said Woitel would bring food to homeless people as often as once a week. Sometimes, Willis said, Woitel would let them use his shower.
“He was the type of person that would give you the shirt off his back,” Willis said. Nearly everyone Mission Local spoke to said the same.
Several years ago, Woitel helped a homeless man who goes by “Bood.” At some point in the last several years, Woitel invited Bood to stay at his Guerrero Street apartment to recover from a leg injury, friends and family said. The two men developed a friendship.
It is Bood that Woitel’s circle believes is a key to solving the mystery of Woitel’s disappearance. Bood could not be reached for this story.
Over the course of their friendship, Woitel became romantically infatuated with Bood, according to Woitel’s close friend Jose Reyes, who met Woitel through friends. Although Bood did not reciprocate the attraction, Woitel often allowed Bood to spend the night at his apartment. He frequently gave Bood money and paid his phone bills, Reyes said.
Friends who observed the relationship worried it was toxic. “He would waste his bank account on whatever Bood wanted,” Reyes said, noting that friends felt the arrangement had gone too far.
“I just got this vibe from him,” Reyes said of Bood. “He would freak out when Chris didn’t get him what he wanted.”
But Woitel was allured by Bood — his burly build, dominant presence, and his affinity for Satanism and the occult, Reyes said. Reyes warned Woitel to be careful: Bood could turn on him one day.
On Jan. 7, at 9:54 p.m., less than 48 hours before Woitel went missing, surveillance footage captured Bood entering Woitel’s apartment. The next day, at 5:45 a.m., the footage shows Bood leave. He did not return, according to footage reviewed by Williams, the private detective. Between Jan. 8 and Jan. 9, there is no footage of Bood entering or leaving the apartment.
But that night, the night before Woitel went missing, Woitel messaged Bood on Facebook. Bood had been using Woitel’s Facebook account to send messages to people Bood knew.
“You fucking asshole! DONE. THAT’S IT. ENOUGH. You are on your own,” Woitel wrote to Bood. “You are far too much trouble. Phone number? Get your own. I’m not paying for you to harass people. You are an asshole. Don’t ever come here again!”
Bood did not respond. Soon after, Woitel went missing.
Three weeks later, on Jan. 29, Bood wrote on Facebook that he heard Woitel had been “jumped and robbed for his computers.” He added that Woitel was “killed” by people named “Nigel, Alonzo, lc, and Eric.”
Bood had a similar story for Williams, the private investigator.
On the morning of Feb. 2, Williams visited Bood at a homeless encampment near SAE Expression College on Shellmound Street in Emeryville. It is unclear how Williams knew Bood was in possession Woitel’s phone, but he asked Bood why he had it. Bood responded that Woitel had sold it to him for $100 when he visited Woitel on Jan. 7. (Friends and family believe Bood may have stolen the phone or Woitel loaned it to him, as he had in the past).
Bood showed the detective the phone, and it was “dead and wet,” Williams wrote in his report.
When Williams asked Bood what had happened to Woitel, Bood responded that he “had strong psychic abilities and had seen in his mind that Christopher had been shot in the head and wrapped in plastic before his body was dumped in the water at the end of Mariposa Street in San Francisco near an abandoned warehouse,” Williams wrote.
He blamed the killing on “Alonzo” and someone named “William.”
“[Bood] was rambling nonsensical things at times and then would tell me again that [Woitel] was murdered in his apartment, wrapped in plastic and dumped in the bay at the end of Mariposa St.,” Williams wrote. “I asked him why they would do such a thing to Christopher and he replied, ‘they robbed him for his computers.’”
Despite believing that Bood was “bad news,” Jose Reyes believes that Bood would have had difficultly harming Woitel by himself, given his bad leg. “He couldn’t have moved his body,” Reyes said, “because he could barely walk.”
In his 15 years as a private investigator, Scott Williams has investigated many missing persons cases. “The vast majority of missing people resurface, especially given a history,” he said, noting that many people who go missing have had a history of disappearing before.
But Woitel did not have a history of going missing. And Williams said the most concerning facts of Woitel’s case are his inactive bank account, and that Woitel generally kept in close, daily contact with friends and family. When Woitel suddenly stopped, it became a “red flag.”
Even then, Williams said, “there are so many things that can render a person to not use their bank account or not be in contact” with friends and family — like getting hurt or “hitchhiking up to Humboldt and getting incarcerated.”
And if you’re frequently letting people from the street into your house?
Certainly, he said, “If you’re inviting transients that are known drug users into your place, there’s always risk there.” And police should look into that, he said. The private investigator said Bood should definitely be a “person of interest” in the police investigation.
The most peculiar part of the case, Williams said, is footage showing Woitel entering his apartment but none of him leaving. “That’s what makes this case so strange.”
Haben, Woitel’s sister, said she met with the police on Thursday. They told her they would begin investigating Woitel’s disappearance in earnest because there were “unique circumstances that led them to believe they should start investigating,” she recalls them saying. She said police were vague on what those circumstances were.
Haben also said they would issue warrants to enter Woitel’s apartment and other “things” — which they did not specify.
Nevertheless, she said, “We’re feeling like it’s now finally going somewhere.”
Hargan Nelson, Woitel’s neighbor, had another theory. He often noticed Woitel try to avoid two friends that frequently visited him at his Guerrero Street apartment — men Nelson could only describe as “funky” and “thugs from the underworld.”
“It seemed strange he would have these friends,” Nelson said.
He thought maybe Woitel was lying low and looking for a clean break. If that was the case, however, Woitel “sure did it in a spooky fashion.”